Analyzing Jack Grealish’s Best Position: Does England finally have a Midfield Maestro once again or just another winger?
Terry: “He reminds me of Joe Cole and Hazard. I just think the natural ability he’s got, a God-given talent that not many people are blessed with.
Ferdinand: “Grealish can manipulate the ball. That’s what I like about him. He has that arrogance, knows he’s a good player and is producing
Pires: “Jack is a great footballer with a good technique — and I love watching him play because he reminds me of Dennis Bergkamp.
Le Tissier: “You can give him the football with three men around him, and he is still as calm as you like.
While he has already the caught the attention of some of the Legends in World Football, fans who tune-in just to watch Jack Grealish have also been on the rise. We are talking about a classy footballer with exquisite dribbling and close control that helps him hover around the pitch as per his whims and fancies. He’s deceptively arrogant on the ball and to many it may look like he exhibits a certain amount of cockiness especially when he teases the opponent while tip-toeing with the ball glued to his feet and simultaneously scanning the options around him. He oozes confidence and refuses to succumb to the pressure. It is indeed a trait that has to be nurtured and encouraged as it is more of an innate characteristic which doesn’t develop via coaching or practice. In footballing language, this is what experts call flair for the game, a natural gift or a finesse that is just there in a handful of players.
Despite criticism from a few that he takes his time on the ball, his decision making is almost always on point and it has definitely helped him progress and become Aston Villa’s very own Talisman. He is well-known for his ball-carrying ability but even as far as his passing is concerned, he can do it all right from breaking lines to progress the attack to killer passes piercing through the opposition defenses into the penalty area.
Jack Grealish is placed second in terms of Key Passes in the Premier League with 86, only behind Kevin De Bruyne. Amongst Europe’s top-five leagues, he is placed fourth along with Lazio’s Luis Alberto also at 86 while Kevin De Bruyne, Alejandro Gomez and Dimitri Payet being the three ahead of him. Heis also part the top 10 across Europe’s top-five leagues in terms of Passes into the Penalty Area. Grealish is surrounded by the likes of Lionel Messi, Thomas Muller, Alejandro Gomez and Alexander-Arnold and given that he plays for a team who are in the relegation battle, he is pretty much the odd-one out in these charts with all of them around the Villa Captain hailing from the top 2–3 sides in their league.
Aston Villa’s very own talisman
Owing to his presence on the left flank, Dean Smith’s men have focused majority of their attacks on that side of the pitch. Aston Villa have generated around 40% of their attacks in the Premier League are from the left flank and it is no secret that, Grealish and his chemistry with Matt Targett are the biggest contributors to it. The Villa Captain often positions himself much deeper than a traditional left winger in order to create space for him to receive the ball. It is from these deeper areas, he carries the ball with penetrating runs towards goal, mostly by drifting inwards towards central areas than go further down the wing. Given that he’s a natural right-foot, it helps him keeping the opponent right-back away from the ball.
As mentioned earlier, his connection with the left-back Targett has been immense for Villa in terms of creating chances from the left flank. The two occupy the first two places in terms of xG Build-up for Villa with Grealish at 9.02 and Targett at 6.18. They have also contributed to some of the most important goals and assists that have won key points for Dean Smith’s men.
It is pretty important to talk about Grealish’s involvement in the build-up because he is already the leading goal contributor for Aston Villa in the Premier League with 7 goals and 6 assists (13 G+A) and also the player with the highest xG Build-up. It is extremely rare for a player to be the leading goal contributor as well as the player with the highest xG Build-up and he is the only player in the Premier League to do so. As you may all be already aware, xG Build-up excludes the player who attempts the goal as well as the pass right before goal. So, having been involved so much in terms of goal-scoring, assisting and creating chances, yet Grealish is actively involved in their build-up, which goes on to show how vital he is to the team.
Entry into the English National Team: Where would he fit in?
There are a few common misconceptions around Grealish’s entry into the English National team and where he would fit in, in terms of position. There is absolutely no doubt whether he has the quality to make the cut and now it is just a matter of figuring out how to get the best out of him and maximize the benefit for the Three Lions as well. Despite Grealish’s performances from the left wing at Aston Villa, he shouldn’t be compared to the traditional wingers that England have like Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho or even Marcus Rashford
If in midfield, the other immediate alternative that our minds tend to incline towards is the number 10 role. However, it is in fact fair to say that he shouldn’t be compared even to the traditional number 10s like James Maddison, Mason Mount or Phil Foden. Jack Grealish is one among the rare breed of footballers, possessing a mixture of character, technique as well as understanding of the game and it is highly probable that with the right guidance, coaching and grooming, he could go onto become a world-class number 6 that England have lacked for quite a long time now.
It is almost not possible that a coach creates a successful number 6 out of a player who has no innate skills or the right mentality needed for it. It requires a set of unique characteristics like staying cool under pressure, the ability to take the risk of losing the ball in areas prone to counter-attack and yet opting to do it, so on and so forth. At the moment, it is not an overstatement to say that there isn’t an English player who can carry it out better than Jack Grealish. It is of absolute necessity to England that they take full advantage of this lad and slot him right in the middle and let his feet do the talking. For reference sake, a few examples of the kind of role we are talking about here could be: Frenkie De Jong, Mateo Kovacic or Fabian Ruiz.
How will moving to number ‘6’ elevate his game
Before I start off, I need to credit an article by Spielverlagerung that I came across years ago which was really eye-opening with regard to how important field of vision is for a player, especially a midfielder, to take his game to the next level.
The article talks about a very intricate concept; the field of vision or how much a player can see, differs from one to another based on the position he takes up on a football pitch. In general, a player has 8 different directions to see and pass the ball into; Forward, Backward, Right, Left and the four diagonal directions. While wingers or wide attackers hug the touchline, they by default don’t have the option to move the ball into three (backward, backward left and backward right) of the eight directions. So what does it mean for a player who plays wide and can not only dribble but has an impeccable passing range? Are his abilities being put to the maximum use?
To answer these questions, first we need to remember that for a playmaker to have a significant impact on the game, he needs passing options in front of him. The more options he has, the better utilized is his passing as he can spread the ball all over the park with different kinds of passes, short, long, through balls, line-breaking passes to beat a line of pressure and so on. However, a wide variety of options is possible to have only when the field of vision is bigger, which is the case for players in the central areas.
As you can see, the central areas offer a vision of the whole pitch in front of the player and in turn would maximize the number of passing options as well. However, the only catch even for a player operating from the center is that he will need to adjust his body position before making passes horizontally to the left/ right or even a full turn towards his own goal if he wants to go backwards. This makes it a tad-bit easier to close down and press players who are facing straight at their goal or their own goal. This is where the half-spaces prove more advantageous as it combines the pros of both wing-play and central-midfield while minimizing the cons. This is not to say that creativity from wide areas is impossible but if you have a player who can wreck havoc from the center, then there is no point in restricting his game to the flanks.
When a player occupies the half-space and opens his body up towards in-field, he has access to the entire pitch and the passing options are maximized while at the same time, the need for an adjustment in terms of body position is also minimal. As mentioned in the article by Spielverlagerung, it is the perfect intersection between having enough space to receive the ball from within pockets without being marked out and having access to all key areas of the pitch. Given Grealish’s supreme technical abilities like close control, dribbling, holding/shielding the ball, vision and passing range, his impact on the game also seems to be at a much higher magnitude when he occupies the half-space rather than staying wide.
His performance against Brighton at home in a 2–1 win back in October stands out as arguably the best he has had all year as he dominated proceedings in the middle of the park from that left half-space. It was indeed a captain’s performance as he was not only behind both of Villa’s goals with a goal and assist but also in terms of build-up, dictating the pace of the attack and had total control in midfield. He ended the game with 87 touches (2nd highest number of touches among all players on the pitch), 63 passes at an accuracy of 84%, 6 key passes, 5 dribbles, 6 fouls won and 0 unsuccessful touches. While the Brighton game is an example, there have been similar games wherein Grealish was able to create an impact from the center.
La Pausa: The Secret behind ‘the Pause’
A term that has been used quite often in the recent past but what is it actually about? It isn’t just a Spanish term that merely sounds intellectual but means nothing on the pitch. In fact it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that it is the most sought after skill in the modern day midfielder, especially those playing as a number 6 or 8.
Speaking of midfielders who function as the 6 or 8, one metric which has been gaining more and more attention these days is the number of progressive passes, which basically means a pass which took the ball closer to goal. Fair enough, it is indeed important for midfielders to progress play into the final-third and towards goal. However, if the pass is being made to a player who’s already been marked and the receiver is just being forced to receive under pressure, then it is actually counter-productive for the team despite a completed progressive pass.
This is where the term ‘La Pausa’ comes into play. It is just the translation of the word ‘The Pause’, which in football terminology refers to the 1–2 second delay a player purposely creates to wait for a teammate to become free after which he executes the pass. While progressing up-field quickly is important in football, the extra few seconds are similar to going one step back to go two steps forward. If we think about how it works, it does seem pretty simple. No defensive shape, no player who is covering a potential passing option, no player who is in charge of closing down the ball carrier stays in the exact same position covering the exact same angle for 2–3 seconds continuously. It is human tendency to step up and tackle the ball carrier when he has the ball and is taking absolutely no action for a few seconds. It more often than not draws the opponent into a challenge and in turn creates space in behind or frees a teammate of the player in possession. Taking maximum advantage of this space hence created by drawing an opponent in via inaction is the objective of ‘the pause’.
While we have seen numerous midfield maestros like Xavi Hernandez use this ‘Pausa’ to perfection, Grealish seems to be one of the latest exponents of the same concept. The Villa Captain’s calm demeanor on the ball and the ability to pick a pass that can pierce through the tightest of angles with precision, are also priceless assets that enable him to take those extra couple of seconds. It is indeed one of the most important facets of football intelligence that one would expect from a modern day central midfielder to elevate his game to the level!
The Ultimate Ball-Carrier
Whether or not one could make note of Grealish’s other technical strengths, his ball-carrying ability has been something that is obvious even to the non-analytical eye. Week in and week out, he has literally taken up the responsibility of progressing Villa’s attack into its next phases. While many may be aware of the fact that Grealish has been one of the best ball-carriers in the Premier League, a closer look at the ball-carrying figures reveals that he is up there among the best even when considering Europe’s top-five leagues.
This can be a real threat when it comes from the middle of the park as penetrating runs past the opposition midfielders could open up opportunities to create big chances. Adding to this is his ability to hold the ball and win fouls as he can intelligently manipulate the opposition’s attempts to dispossess him. When all of these abilities combine into one player, it could only mean one thing: A Complete Midfielder!
As former England International Joe Cole had also mentioned, “His England career has been a long time coming for various reasons but no shirt would be too heavy for Jack. He’d be able to wear it.”
Here are some of the ways England could fit him into the XI
It is of course a mere reflection of ideas based on Grealish’s performances in the recent past. There isn’t anything black-and-white in football and there is no proven formula for success as well. However, this is undoubtedly worth a try as if it does succeed, the English are going to have a real gem in their hands!